Launched globally at the end of June this year, Office 365 represents a radical move by software giant Microsoft to shift its premium productivity, communications and collaboration products into the cloud. To find out more about Office 365, I have arranged to meet up with John Fernandes, the director of marketing and operations of Microsoft Singapore at the company's local headquarters.
We spoke on topics ranging from the advantages offered by the cloud as a platform, business expectations towards cloud computing and how Office 365 can help smaller businesses change the way they do business. Always forthright in his responses, Fernandes also spoke candidly about the relative risks of outages as well as the local take-up rate for Microsoft's latest and grandest foray into cloud computing.
What is Office 365?
For those not already familiar with it, Office 365 is a comprehensive suite of services consisting of multiple products such as Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online to provide services such as messaging, collaboration and communication. On the productivity front, Office Web Apps (OWA) let users view and edit documents created on desktop versions of Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote) using nothing more than a supported web browser. Finally, an Office Professional Plus option provides businesses that still require the desktop version of Microsoft Office with the appropriate software licenses and installation files.
The hype about the cloud
One of the advantages offered by cloud computing is how it allows companies without dedicated IT personnel to leverage best-of-the-breed technology to level the playing field against larger competitors. Office 365 is not a product sell, asserts Fernandes, but it represents an opportunity for these businesses to compete.
As a productivity platform, Office 365 extends the ability of small businesses to take advantage of productivity tools that they are already familiar with. To illustrate his point, Fernandes offered the example of how some employees may not require a dedicated workstation, but could benefit from having email access in order to check their leave status or their next duty roster, for instance. In this context, businesses can deploy shared terminals where "kiosk" workers can access messaging services for as low as US$4 per user per month. Seen in that context, it is evident that Office 365 is about providing businesses with more options than about releasing a "me-too" product.
Hype aside, Fernandes says that the cloud computing market is an ambitious one where users have high expectations, a trait which he expects to drive future growth. The director views the red-hot interest in the cloud as something that will pass however. "Now when people think cloud, this is like when we talk about the Internet in the past. The cloud is merely an enabling layer" he said, noting that "nobody talks about the Internet now."
What of the IT department?
One perennial concern about the rise of cloud computing has been its potential impact on the IT department. Accordingly, I raised the question to Fernandes, who conceded that it is a subject of concern for IT professionals. "People in the IT industry have been trying to figure out their position in this (cloud) space," he said.
However, Fernandes suggested that the ultimate outcome of whether jobs will be impacted boils down to the topic of value creation. Given that the primary constrains those organizations often face pertains to cost, it is reasonable that a migration to the cloud could allow them to redirect any surplus IT resources towards projects to positively impact the bottom-line.
Moreover, Fernandes also pointed out those most small businesses do not have an IT department in the first place; such companies would typically task their most IT-savvy staffer as the ad-hoc IT department. In such a situation, a cloud deployment would free the beleaguered employee to focus more on his or her primarily work responsibilities.
All about uptime
Does Microsoft have the ability to deliver a truly robust solution in the cloud? There had been a number of localized and global outages since Office 365 was launched, and I wanted to know what Microsoft is doing to guarantee the reliability and overall uptime of its cloud offering. Fernandes started off by acknowledging that mistakes are made in every company, and that outages "will happen." This is a fair statement, given how every cloud service out there has suffered some form of downtime or service disruption.
On its part, Microsoft addresses availability by placing safety, privacy and maintaining of SLA (Service-level agreements) as top priorities. In addition, the company has stringent internal policies and certifications that go beyond the expectations of customers. Outages are also preemptively addressed by mitigation planning and having strong resources available in the country to support and address any outages. To top it off, Fernandes reminded me that Office 365 is really building on top of decades of cloud experience that Microsoft has accrued over more than a decade – think Hotmail with its almost half a billion user accounts.
Interestingly, Fernandes consider one of the greatest inhibitors towards the adoption of Office 365 in Singapore and the region to be a lack of awareness. In his opinion, there is currently so much information about the cloud that it is leading to an overload and a general reticence for businesses to consider Office 365.
In closing, Fernandes reiterated how Office 365 can help businesses to collaborate in the cloud, exhorting them to leverage the cloud to help them compete. "Your competitors may [already] be using it," cautioned Fernandes, "Use the best technologies for your business, don't delay. Don't wait."
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